Motorcycling Over The  Savannah in the Sahel Of West Africa

90 km In the Bush.Doing Drought Season Drip Irrigated Gardens.
90 km In the Bush. Setting Up Drought Season Drip Irrigated  Vegetable Gardens For Elderly Women.

This is how we get around while working as humanitarians in Mali. On a 125 cc Sanya, and the green “Jakarta”, both from China.

No road  in some sections where we were going today, following merely well worn foot and bike paths.

Hot as can be in the afternoon sun too. It is well over 40 Celsius in the afternoon sun. With all this garb I am wearing, the instant you stop you are sweltering and dripping in sweat. The moment you stop driving, you have to rip off your helmet quickly or you feel like you are going to smother.

It is not so visible in this picture because I am wearing a nylon jacket and pants. But we are coated in Dust. We are always coated with red dust and it gets into everything. So we wrap up in light weight nylon outerwear, which the dust does not stick to as much, and wrap up our necks to keep our helmets from filling with the blinding, chocking, microscopic dust particles from the road and the Harmatan dust fog coming down from the Sahara Desert. There is nothing worse than having your cloths, neck and wrists coated with red dust as you begin to work for the day. The sweat begins to mix with it making mud smears on your skin. It is a disgusting feeling for the day in the village.

When I first came to Mali, I did not cover up much because the heat was killing me. Why wrap up? After ruining too many sets of cloths I smartened up. Cotton cloths act like giant air filter that trap the Harmatan and road dust as you drive along enjoying the Breeze. It is a welcome relief from the heat. However, the dust soon clogs the cotton fibers of your clothing, packed full of dust in every filtering fiber. When washed the dust turns to a slimy mud  leaving a indelible red tinge in the fabric. Ruined!

My bike was about $1200 CDN, the smaller green one only about $750-800, but it is not a very good bush bike.  This motorcycle is great on gas. I spend about $5 a week on each bike, and we do a lot of bush driving. I get close to 170 miles per imperial gallon, which is around 65 km per Liter, if I am correct with the math I just did in my head.

A few expats have motorcycles for casual use. They like to get the brand names because they are “better quality”. Might be true, but out in Sikasso there are few Yamahas because we are marketing to the poorest on earth after all. That makes parts much harder to get and pricey also. I can purchase locally EVERY single part i need to repair my motorcycle, cheaply. I have been hammering the crap out of this bike in the bush for three years now, and I don’t baby it,  and yet I have never had any mechanical problems. The few parts I have changed were tops $4.  I can buy three bikes for the price of one Yamaha. If I was breaking down all the time, that would be nerving out in this isolated bush, and then  I might consider a Yamaha. However, this has not been the case. The Sanya is a good basic “Tank”.  Nothing fancy, but gets the job done for us. I even have my wife on back many trips.

The only thing is I wish I had a little more power. The top speed is 90km hr. But on bush roads we often can’t even get up to more than 35 km hr anyway (very rare stretches 40 km), because its too rough. So the thing is fast enough to kill me , and to get the job done.  There are simply no other Bush Bikes with any bigger engines in my region. It has a big chassis and shocks,  but this tiny motor. I am a big guy and hauling my ass around is a task. But like my Dad told me;

“You don’t need a bigger bike son, you need a smaller ass, and you can do something about that.”

I love driving motorcycles, but it is exhausting to do it all the time in the bush. The shine soon wears off. You soon grow tired of being dusty and dirty all the time.   But our small agency could never afford spending the $80,000 for one of the tank vehicles we see most NGO’s driving. So it is what it is. I’m just glad to be working here. I have a deep burden for these people and the unique and challenging needs of this region. Mali gets into the very fiber of your soul, and it is impossible to shake off anything about West Africa once you get the bug gnawing at your heart.

“You will remain young as long as you are open to what is beautiful, good, and great…” (Gen. Douglas MacArthur)

Anyway, I get to enjoy this kind of scenery up close.  This picture is a typical dry season in the Savannah, in the Sahel of Mali, West Africa. Dry, parched, little vegetation, short stubby trees that can barely withstand the nine months of drought. But it has it’s own charm don’t you think?

Maybe some of you bikers would like to help us provide clean water to a few needy families out here in this bushy region? Hard to believe children still die out here because of contaminated water, when we have a very simple and economical solution. I always keep a filter in my bag, and when I come across a family with sick children from water quality issues I get a bucket at the village market and immediately set the family up with a water purification solution that lasts decades.  Check our our agencies Simple Water Purity Project  for some needy families.

Not may westerners have ever seen this part of Mali, let alone on Motorcycle.

“I lived in Africa almost half a lifetime ago. I was very young when I went, not just in years, and I returned home feeling prematurely aged. For months after coming back, like the ancient mariner with his gray beard and glittering eyes, I cornered anyone half willing to listen and try to describe what I had seen and done and been over there. I would tell the story……and the sympathetic nods would last about 5 min. before my quarry’s eyes shifted toward the exit……the experience proved as incommunicable as the need to explain was urgent. Family and friends waited for me to resume normal life, but I seemed unable to complete the trip back. Part of me remains stuck in Africa,….. I missed the intensity, the surprise, the sense that life was real and hard and lovely……” ( The Village Of Waiting. George Packer. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2001, pg 317-318)

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